Book Review: “Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy”

A review I wrote of John Gurney’s recent book. N.B. This review has appeared elsewhere.

 

‘Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?’

- Gerrard Winstanley (The New Law of Righteousness, 1649)

For those familiar with the excellent (if rather odd) 1975 film Winstanley, these lines may ring out in actor Miles Halliwell’s serene, well-spoken, home-counties voice. While we can never know what Winstanley really sounded like, enough is known of his life to give a fascinating insight into much of his personal and political journey. Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) was of the ‘middling sort’, a cloth trader from Wigan who moved to London, lost his business and became one of the founders of a lasting radical tradition: that of the Diggers.

As John Gurney points out in the introduction to his recent book, the time seems ripe for a reappraisal and wider dissemination of the thought of Winstanley. Issues of gross inequality, pressure on the natural environment, the oppressive role of the state (and its favouring of the wealthy), and the alienation of people from the product of their labour all gripped Winstanley, and they of course remain key problems for the contemporary left. This volume cuts to the heart of Winstanley’s thought on these topics and many more, yet it goes beyond the work of one man and successfully puts the Digger movement in its historical context.

After a stirring introduction, the second chapter gives a good outline of the material links between Wigan (and Lancashire more generally) and London through the burgeoning textile industry and its associated guilds; this was the tumultuous world of early mercantile capitalism. Winstanley’s retreat from London, caused seemingly by failure in his chosen trade, led him to Cobham in Surrey. His radicalisation there took place during personal economic difficulties but Gurney sensibly declines to assign direct causality; we should not automatically assume that it was only because the system failed for Winstanley that he turned against it.

Indeed, Gurney’s excellent contextualisation of the religious (moral) framework embraced by Winstanley and others suggests that egalitarianism was a growing concern at this time. This is a similar line to that taken by Christopher Hill, whose work should probably be read alongside Gurney’s biography. Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down (1972) paints a broad picture of the many contemporary political and religious radicalisms which erupted in seventeenth-century Britain. While Hill covered the Diggers only relatively briefly, Winstanley emerged, according to Gurney, as ‘the real hero, and the true revolutionary’ (p.7).(1)

The third chapter traces intellectual parallels and antecedents relating to Winstanley’s ‘Digger’ writings, but again Gurney declines to speculate on direct influences, instead pointing to the more general milieu of common radical and millenarian ideas. Gurney identifies two major innovations in the Digger movement, both important strands of Winstanley’s works: the consistent complaint that the English were still living under the Norman Yoke (that is, an aristocratic, arbitrary elite imposed from without), and the failure of that elite to honour the social contract. Winstanley argued that the common people had opposed the king with both money and blood, and had paid a disproportionately high price in both.

There follows a very useful summary of the longstanding historical debate over the precise relationship between the Diggers and the Levellers. Gurney’s approach is rather unusual but refreshing; he essentially tells us that the issue is not all that important, and certainly should not obscure the radical demands of either group. Much of the confusion centres on a particular Winstanley pamphlet called The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649). Note the lack of apostrophe; Gurney suggests that it refers (in the singular) to Christ, the True Leveller. This would negate a great deal of historical debate over why the Diggers (who did not seem to refer to themselves by that name either) had given themselves a name so close to that of an already-existing radical movement, the Levellers. Gurney also brings out very well the viciousness of the attacks on Winstanley himself, on his livestock, and on the land used by the Diggers.

Leftist traditions are divided over whether Winstanley represents a true precursor to later incarnations of socialism or communism, but Gurney makes a powerful case for the Diggers as genuine proto-communists. It is difficult to argue with this, though some leftist traditions of course do; Winstanley favoured a national strike, attacked wage labour, believed that all things are held in common and railed against the clerical and secular authorities and their wealthy masters. That said, readers may find it a step too far when Gurney insists that Winstanley’s final important work, The Law of Freedom (1652), fits with this radical set of ideals. There are bold attempts to smooth the differences between the earlier and later Winstanley but those extracts from The Law of Freedom included (in a very fair and even-handed manner) by Gurney still convey a retreat into a more conservative and patriarchal line of argument.

Finally, we should remember to look a bit further afield. The context of the outbreak of radicalism is not only the ‘English Revolution’, as Christopher Hill dubbed it, but a wider series of economic and social upheavals ranging across Europe during the transition from late feudalism to early capitalism (c.1350-c.1700). However, the intricacies of these conflicts are often lost to modern leftist traditions because of their close ties to religious conflict. Beginning with the Peasants’ Revolt in England and the Wycliffe-inspired Lollard movement, the continuing outbreaks of rebellion by the poor, often supported by radical dissenting clerics, spread across Europe and reached a numerical peak in the enormous (but relatively little-known) German Peasants’ War of 1524-26. In this conflict we may find many strands of egalitarian and millenarian thought which later were fused with the specific English complaints about the Norman Yoke to form a hotbed of radicalism in the 1640s. It is very hard to read Winstanley’s work without thinking of Thomas Müntzer, for example. Müntzer, a cleric, was beheaded in Thuringia in 1525 having proclaimed ‘omnia sunt communia’ (‘everything is common’, usually taken to mean ‘all things belong to all people’); a Winstanleyian sentiment to be sure.

Notes

1. Hill went into greater detail in The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley (1976).

Published in: on August 19, 2014 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Boy’s a genius

Boy's a genius

The next generation is also worried about the collapse of the wave function

Published in: on November 8, 2013 at 11:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mallards

We saw a fantastic deal on ducks at our local butcher – four for a tenner. They weren’t too big but we thought the price was too good to miss out on (it worked out about the quarter of the price of prepared meat).

The birds

The birds

The only problem was they were intact (aside from the shot wounds or broken necks); we had a long evening of plucking, eviscerating, cleaning and butchering the ducks, but at the end we had eight breasts, eight legs, a huge pot of carcasses for stock plus some interesting other edible bits: hearts, gizzards and liver.

Plucking the wing

Plucking the wing

The first stage was plucking a band around the wings which would allow us to cut them off later.

Removing the down

Removing the down

Next came the more general plucking of feathers; once the top feathers are pulled, there is a layer of dense down underneath. This got everywhere of course.

Pile of feathers

Pile of feathers

We wondered about using the feathers but adding them to the compost would probably have attracted foxes, so we bagged them up for disposal.

IMG_5968

Finishing the pluck

Once the birds were plucked (the one above was the most successful!) we cleared up a bit and got ready for the evisceration, which we would need to do before we could butcher the meat.

Off with her head

Off with her head

The feet and wings came off first, then the head. This was the moment to pay some sort of muted respect to these beautiful iridescent birds. As meat goes, this is pretty happy stuff – one moment they were evidently stuffing their crops, then in a flash, oblivion. No lifelong corralling or drawn-out sadistic death.

Viscera

Viscera

Digging the organs out of the body cavity was next, using two probing fingers. First the gizzard (on the far right in the picture, more on that below); then the guts, being careful not to perforate them; the lungs; then finally the heart and liver.

Gizzards and hearts

Gizzards and hearts

The guts and lungs were discarded but we kept the gizzards and hearts and a bit of liver (though the liver was very fragile). We had a chicken the other day and will combine the leftover hearts and livers from all the birds in a dish.

Inside the gizzard

Inside the gizzard

Cleaning and preparing the gizzard was probably the most interesting and fiddly bit of work. You have to split the casing, then clean out the grit and other contents. The texture of the inside is remarkable, like a gnarly old heel or piece of crinkled leather.

Prepared gizzards

Prepared gizzards

You can see one of the gizzard linings on the bottom left, they are remarkable. Tough as old boots. This is carefully sliced off leaving some rich, deep burgundy gizzard meat.

Gutted

Gutted

We then had four gutted ducks, ready for filleting, along with a bunch of gizzard halves and some hearts and liver.

The fruit of labour

The fruit of labour

So that’s what we ended up with: eight legs for confit, eight breasts, a pot full of carcasses for stock, and a few bits of offal. About four hours’ work (and a ten quid outlay), but most of all a good lesson into the process and reality of meat preparation. I was a bit rubbish at plucking but I’m sure I’ll improve…

Published in: on October 21, 2013 at 10:07 am  Comments (2)  

Provence

IMG_0309

IMG_0312

IMG_0318

IMG_0322

IMG_0323

IMG_0340

IMG_0341

IMG_0344

IMG_0345

IMG_0346

IMG_0347

IMG_0351

IMG_0355

IMG_0356

IMG_0362

IMG_0365

IMG_0371

IMG_0372

IMG_0373

IMG_0374

IMG_0377

IMG_0461

IMG_0463

IMG_0470

IMG_0476

IMG_0479

IMG_0481

IMG_0482

IMG_0497

IMG_0499

IMG_0503

IMG_0504

IMG_0510

IMG_0511

IMG_0512

IMG_0513

IMG_0514

IMG_0517

IMG_0520

Published in: on August 26, 2013 at 8:33 am  Comments (1)  

Some brief thoughts on Snowden in historical perspective

I’d just like to point out a few parallels and contrasts between the current case of whistleblowing CIA hacker Edward Snowden and some examples from my milieu of research, mid-C20 Mexico. Snowden is currently attempting to find a state which will offer him political asylum having had his passport suspended by the U.S. government following his leaking of revelations about the NSA’s spying activities (both domestic and foreign).

Snowden had, among his initial flurry of asylum applications, included Russia. Like many other examples from the list, this was curious since his asylum is a result of his (apparent) commitment to open, popular scrutiny of government, something Russia has very little of. Understandable, though – he is backed into a corner and cannot afford to be choosy at this point. This application was withdrawn by Snowden, however, when Vladimir Putin stipulated that his asylum would be dependent on his cessation of human rights-based campaigning. Incidentally, Henrik Hertzberg has written here about the brilliance of Putin’s multi-layered statement on the matter.

This condition of exile naturally brought to my mind that placed upon (first) Leon Trotsky and (later) Republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War in Mexico. In both cases, those negotiating on behalf of the asylum seeker conceded that they would not partake in political activity in their place of exile. This meant domestic political activity – for example, when Pablo Neruda arrived in post-WWII Mexico he was free to criticise the Chilean government. Similarly, Trotsky continued his life as an international revolutionary, but practically-speaking his international map suddenly had a Mexico-shaped hole in it. Hence, when his initial closest allies the LCI called for sabotage and direct action against businesses to protest against the high cost of living in 1937, Trotsky disowned them, describing their methods as “stupid”. (Note that this debate has barely evolved since 1937 and lives on in the Trotskyist and anarchist divergence in current methods to oppose the coalition government in the UK). Nor could Trotsky comment on the manner in which the railroads were (in all likelihood) handed over to workers’ control deliberately in order to fail in 1938.

When the Spanish exiles began to arrive fleeing the Francoist advance, they too were obliged to keep to non-Mexican affairs in their political discussion. In the case of the Republican government in exile this was not too taxing since they spent much of their time engaged in bitter personal recriminations. For those lower down the political hierarchy, though, the safety and opportunity Mexico afforded meant having to put their passions and energies into (usually) cultural – rather than political – affairs. When many of their children became involved in the 1968 student movement and more generalised opposition, the first generation of immigrants panicked, fearful that the political ‘sins’ of the children would be revisited upon them and all would find themselves once again without a home.

I suppose what I am trying to convey is that asylum is a tool for the state which offers it too. It can be used as a fig leaf for domestic authoritarianism, as it was in post-Revolutionary Mexico and (rather honestly, it seems) would have been in Putin’s Russia. Just as the Mexican government could trumpet its fraternal attitude to the Republican refugees while muting them politically, it would later proudly boast of a revolutionary brotherhood with Cuba while providing the U.S. government with lists of passengers travelling there from Mexico and supposedly allowing the C.I.A. to use the Mexican embassy in Havana as a listening post. While we ought to be appalled at the actions of the United States government in twisting arms across the globe to deny Snowden political asylum, we must not forget that states which receive exiles do so for their own politically-expedient reasons – even if they are nominally left-wing.

Published in: on July 3, 2013 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Highgate Cemetery

We went for a wander around Highgate Cemetery in the pouring rain on Friday. Here are a few of the more notable graves.

IMG_5493

IMG_5506

IMG_5504

IMG_5503

IMG_5502

IMG_5500

IMG_5499

 

IMG_5495

 

 

 

and of course…

IMG_5496

Published in: on June 23, 2013 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Matt Harvey Oswald

Matt Harvey Oswald

Another entry for Amazin’ Avenue’s awful MSPaint contest

Published in: on April 16, 2013 at 6:47 am  Leave a Comment  

Pre-Raphaelites

I managed a brief rush through the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the Tate last week. Much of it was familiar to me thanks to the prevalence of the more labour-oriented and allegorical works among the municipal galleries of our provincial cities, though I’d also been to a wonderful Holman Hunt show in Manchester a year or two ago.

My opinion on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had, before I went to the Tate exhibition, been rather fixed for some time: that William Holman Hunt was the only true master among them, that Ford Madox Brown (not a PRB member but a close associate and prominent in the Tate show) had moments of genuine greatness, that John Everett Millais could paint but perhaps wasn’t so hot on composition/subject selection, and that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the biggest hacks going, the Damien Hirst of his era.

This show, while enjoyable and rewarding, did nothing to alter my opinions (except perhaps raise Millais somewhat in my estimation). Holman Hunt towers above the rest, a real artistic giant, oozing pain and piety but melding his palette beautifully and imbuing the whole enterprise with a real heft. Of course everyone loves The Hireling Shepherd, The Light of the World and The Scapegoat, but I’m was most taken with The Shadow of Death and Isabella and the Pot of Basil.

Madox Brown has a few absolute gems. The Last of England has long been a favourite (those who know me won’t be surprised), but Work and The Pretty Baa-Lambs are both wonderful; Work and An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead draw me in particularly for their London-explorer interest.

Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents (or Christ in the House of Bobby Charlton as it was always known in our house) was another highlight, though it dawned on me that as a child I always thought the dark-haired youth on the left was Jesus and that the stigmatised boy in the foreground was an interloper who had wandered into the workplace.

I can take or leave Burne-Jones and the rest of the mythological guff, but Rossetti really takes the biscuit; I think he’s a really terrible painter. The hype machine around him reminds of me of Damien Hirst and the Emperor’s New Clothes of crap Brit-Art. I almost said Rossetti reminds me of Peter Doherty, but that strikes me as rather unfair on the latter, for while he similarly is claimed as a sort of fin-de-siecle polymath, he at least is pretty good at one of his trades.

Anyhow, all told, I didn’t learn a great deal (which saddens me in a big exhibition) but then the boy was shouting his head off all day and we couldn’t linger, so perhaps I missed some subtleties. I’d never pass up the chance to see the wonderful Holman Hunts and Madox Browns though, so it was very much a worthwhile visit.

Published in: on January 19, 2013 at 9:33 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

Hunt & Windsor: A Synthpop Phenomenon?

Don’t know why I thought of doing this, but it seemed very fitting when presented with this photo.

The artist formerly known as Prince Harry, and some right hunt.

 

Published in: on August 3, 2012 at 7:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Hadrian’s Wall Run: Video

Here’s a short video of the run

Published in: on August 3, 2012 at 7:31 am  Leave a Comment  
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: